By Jackina Stark
After years of guerilla warfare, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians) gained complete power over Cambodia in April 1975 to begin Year Zero and form a Communist peasant farming society. Foreigners were expelled, all national and international communications were cut off, health care was eliminated, and the inhabitants of Cambodian cities were evacuated on foot by gunpoint—2 million in Phnom Penh alone.
Doctors, lawyers, teachers, monks, former soldiers and their wives and children—all the educated, religious, and wealthy—were executed. Those allowed to live were forced to labor in the fields 18 hours a day, typically receiving around six ounces of rice every two days and always supervised by Khmer Rouge soldiers ready to kill for the slightest infraction.
Before the Pol Pot regime was routed by Vietnam in 1979, it is estimated that as many as 2 million Cambodians, 25 percent of the population, were killed by execution, starvation, exhaustion, or disease.
Sokha Sath and Momm Nhem Sath were among those who managed to survive.
Sokha and others driven to the fields had to make their own shelter or have none. Sokha, like everyone living the nightmare, was always exhausted, starving, and sleep-deprived. Twice, when he was tied up and questioned, he thought he might also be executed.
In another area of the country, Momm, who was only 14 when the takeover began, also worked long days in the rice fields with little food and sometimes with only three hours sleep. She used a pile of dirt for a pillow during the few hours sleep she was allowed. In the fields she was terrified of the leeches that covered her but was told, “Leeches or a gun—which would you choose?”
Primitive and Precarious
In 1980, after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, Sokha and Momm met and married near Battambang, Cambodia. But conditions were still primitive and precarious. Between 1980 and 1984, Sokha continued to struggle to live and help others to live: he walked two days to get rice for his family and others, made long bicycle trips to the river for water to drink and sell, fished and used the fish Momm dried for bartering on the border of Thailand, and rode a bicycle to the border to purchase food and clothing for people in his community, using gold that people had managed to keep hidden.
By 1985, the Saths had two daughters, Theary, 4, and Thearin, 2. The Vietnam army began requiring Cambodians to go into the forest to cut trees, but Khmer Rouge holdouts ambushed and killed workers who ventured there. And this was not the only threat. Old land mines killed some, and still others died with malaria.
The Saths had a young family to live for and decided they would attempt to escape to a UNICEF refugee camp just over the border of Thailand. Because the Cambodian army would detain people trying to escape to Thailand, Sokha and Momm travelled at night, near each other but separately so she could say she was looking for her husband if she were stopped and questioned.
Before leaving, Momm discovered she was expecting their third child. She could not imagine making this long trip on foot, through minefields, trying to care for her young daughters while pregnant, so she took a concoction to abort the baby. The drug was mixed in alcohol, something she didn’t ordinarily drink, and apparently she didn’t ingest enough to abort the child. Her third daughter, Theara, was born in the refugee camp. Theara likes to think it wasn’t the medicine that prevented her abortion. She tells it this way: “I not going anywhere!”
The likely answer is God had a plan for Theara (Tear-ah) Sath.
I will never forget meeting her for the first time. She was a little fireball, surely chosen by God in 2007 to interpret for 12 ladies from the U.S. who formed the first organized team to visit Rapha House in Battambang. Rapha is a safe house for sex-trafficked girls; it was founded by Joe Garman and his daughter, Stephanie Garman Freed, the U.S. director. Stephanie knew about Theara and her family because Sokha was the pastor for a church that Joe’s organization, American Rehabilitation Ministries (ARM), had built on Women’s Island, a former killing field.
Sokha and Momm had become Christians in the refugee camp—Sokha drawn to the singing and the story of Jesus, and Momm influenced by the Christian doctor with whom she worked. Both were drawn by Christian kindness unlike anything they had ever known.
Since returning to Cambodia in 1992, the Saths and their four children have worked tirelessly with the agonizingly poor and disenfranchised around them. Through Theara, the team of 12 ladies met the whole Sath family on that first trip.
I’ve been to Cambodia five times now, and I know when I sit and eat and visit with the Sath family, I am among those “the world was not worthy of.”
My first realization of this was when we walked through the Saths’ mostly Muslim neighborhood, feeling sick at the poverty we saw everywhere. We were with Theara, and child after child, filthy but beautiful, grabbed our hands and walked along with us.
When I was there in 2007, twice a week a hundred of these children arrived at the Sath home for Kids Club and came every day to play.
This had begun many years before when the oldest daughter, Theary, saw children wandering around and asked 10 or 15 of them if they’d like to learn some songs. Thus it began: the children came twice a week to sing, dance, hear Bible stories, and eat some kind of treat even though the Saths had little to spare.
Some in the neighborhood said the Saths should help themselves before they help other people. Some said, “You can’t do that!” But Theary knew better. They didn’t have much, but they had enough to share with those who had less.
Today the Saths are all involved in a variety of helping ministries.
Sokha goes each day to minister to the poor people on Women’s Island. Because of American awareness trips to Rapha House and Kids Club (which has become a prevention ministry under the Rapha House organization), several small, simple homes have been built on the island, and volunteers have helped the women develop a sewing business.
Sokha preaches on Sundays and interprets when there are guest speakers from the United States. He recently began a leadership group with other churches in the Phnom Penh area. Eighteen pastors study with him every month, and the 18 ministries work together to support and encourage one another.
Momm works eight hours a day as manager of house mothers at Agape, another international mission that works with trafficked girls. She gets up at 5:10 every morning to have devotions for some neighborhood Muslim women, who love her. She has a 45-minute-plus drive to and from work, until recently on a moto, and gets home around 6:30 p.m.
She fixes dinner for the family, which now includes 15 neighborhood young people who live in the Sath home. While others clean up after dinner, Momm has her hour of personal devotions with God so she can “keep going.”
On Saturdays, Momm has a Bible study for 30 or so ladies from both her neighborhood and Women’s Island. One week they gather at the Sath home and the next week at Women’s Island. After the study the ladies walk through the area and pray for their neighbors.
When she and I spoke of her tireless work for others, tears sprung to my eyes, and then to hers.
Theary turned over the Kids Club to her younger sisters more than 10 years ago when she married and had a child. She now manages an orphanage and arranges intervention visits from French medical teams.
Her sister Thearin and Thearin’s husband run a salon for girls, ages 12–19, mostly from Women’s Island; at the salon, the girls can get an education and learn a trade. The salon is downstairs; upstairs are rooms for Thearin’s family and rooms for the 17 girls who live there at any given time. They employ two trainers for the salon and a housemother for the girls. Thearin also helps select and purchase fabric for the sewing business of both Rapha House and Women’s Island.
Like all the Saths, she has a tender heart and a willing spirit. She rescued a neglected and unwanted baby girl with various medical problems from a nearby village. The child is growing and doing well. Thearin named her Mercy.
Theara has been the Rapha House liaison and interpreter for hundreds of awareness teams since 2007, and she usually visits the United States once a year to speak with and visit supporters. She remains the Cambodian director of Kids Club, but the day-to-day Kids Club work now falls to the fourth Sath sibling, younger brother Alyia, who is the Kids Club manager.
The Least of These
In 2010 Chris Wheeler, with the help of Twin Oaks Christian Church, Woodhaven, Michigan, where she and her husband, Randy, serve, began a sponsorship program with 10 others for Kids Club children who had no health care, never enough food, and no money to attend school. Thirty dollars a month covers school costs, uniforms, school supplies, medical and dental care, and rice for the family so they are not tempted to sell one child so the other children can eat.
Donor funds were used to purchase land for the Kids Club behind the Sath home; a structure was built on the land to accommodate the growing numbers. The Kids Club now has 485 sponsored children and employs 18 young people who work with the children and 15 social workers to regularly check on the children at home. There are 30 to 35 kids in the preschool.
Alyia is especially concerned for the young men in the club and has special Bible studies for them and discussions about how to be good men who treat women with respect. He also has developed a business for some of them that makes jewelry from coconut shells.
The governor of the province where the Saths reside heard about the family’s efforts and asked to visit Kids Club. He brought gifts for the children and told everyone there that he wishes everyone in Cambodia cared about others like the Sath family. His visit was covered in the newspaper and on television.
The Saths don’t seem to give that honor much thought. I think what pleases them most is their reputation among “the least of these,” the poor they love and serve. It’s reflected in what the people say about the family when someone is hurt or has any other sort of need: “Go to the Jesus House. They will help you.”
Anyone interested in sponsoring a child can find information at raphahouse.org. Because of the success of the Saths’ Kids Club, a second Kids Club has been established in Battambang, where there are 180 sponsored children. Chris Wheeler is now the U.S. director of Kids Clubs.
Jackina Stark is a retired Ozark Christian College English professor. She met the Sath family on her first of five trips to Cambodia and was humbled and honored to be in the presence of people who tirelessly and endlessly minister to “the least of these” in so many ways. On the last trip in February 2016, she asked them to tell her their story so she could share it with others.